Yemeni airstrike kills six suspected al-Qaeda militants

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 16, 2010

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Yemeni forces killed six suspected al-Qaeda militants Friday, possibly including the network's top military commander in Yemen, in an airstrike near the Saudi Arabian border, Yemeni officials said.

The assault -- the fifth airstrike in Yemen targeting suspected Islamist extremists in less than a month -- was the latest in what appears to be an escalating campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate that asserted responsibility for the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

Among those killed may have been Qasim al-Raymi, the branch's senior military leader, who allegedly plotted to kill the American ambassador and was linked to a 2007 suicide bombing that killed eight Spanish tourists.

The airstrike, at 2.30 p.m. Friday, targeted two vehicles near a village on the border between the northern Yemeni provinces of Saada and al-Jawf, security officials said.

The attack resembled a November 2002 assault in eastern Yemen, in which a U.S. Predator drone launched a missile at a car, killing six suspected militants. They included Abu Ali al-Harithi, the then-leader of al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, who the United States said was involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the southern port of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors.

It is unclear what role, if any, the United States may have played in Friday's attack. U.S. and Yemeni officials say their growing cooperation on counterterrorism is limited to intelligence, training and equipment. The United States has announced that it will double its counterterrorism assistance to Yemen this year.

Among the other suspected militants thought to have been killed Friday are Ammar Ubadah al-Waeli, Ayeth Jaber al-Shabwani and Saleh al-Tayes. Yemeni officials described the three as some of the branch's "most dangerous" operatives. Two other suspected militants escaped, officials said.

This is not the first time Yemen has said that it had killed Raymi. Even as Yemeni defense sources announced his death Friday, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington issued a cautious statement saying only that "six unidentified" al-Qaeda operatives had been killed and that Raymi and the three other operatives "may have been also eliminated."

Raymi's death would be a sharp setback for the al-Qaeda affiliate as it seeks to heighten its global profile and influence. He played an important role in recruiting the current generation of militants making up the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But most analysts say they doubt his death would seriously weaken the branch, which has grown more organized and tactically sophisticated since last year, when it was formed with the merger of the Yemeni and Saudi offshoots of al-Qaeda. Other top al-Qaeda leaders have been killed in recent years, but the branch's infrastructure has only grown stronger.

"His death, if true, would be a very significant blow for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, although not necessarily a debilitating one," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar and terrorism analyst at Princeton University.

Raymi was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005 after being convicted of planning to assassinate the U.S. ambassador and bomb the diplomatic quarter in the capital, Sanaa. Neither plot was carried out. In 2006, he escaped from a Yemeni prison, along with 22 other al-Qaeda militants.

Yemeni officials say Waeli was also involved in the bombing of the Spanish tourists and is suspected of playing a role in the June abduction of a German family and a British man.

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